WASHINGTON — A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday night accuses D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department of keeping a watchlist of its critics -- and stalling or denying their requests for public information in what it calls a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.
The lawsuit, filed by defense attorney and police reform advocate Amy Phillips, says those on the police department’s list include her, the ACLU and some reporters – including WUSA9 chief investigative reporter Eric Flack.
Flack was looking into the department’s controversial stop and frisk policies and invasive genital searches by former Officer Sean Lujacono. The lawsuit alleges police leaders singled out Flack and stalled his Freedom of Information Act requests. The department’s own website shows after years of waiting, police have yet to respond to many of those requests.
Phillips was looking into the same issues as Flack. She alleges she too was put on the watchlist.
"The District is attempting to silence speech criticizing the police," Phillips' lawyer, Charlie Gerstein, said. "[It's] part of a disturbing national trend: governments trying to silence advocates who want to change the criminal legal system.”
READ: The full lawsuit is linked below.
The lawsuit alleges the department is still keeping the watchlist under its new chief, Robert Contee III.
“We should be able to monitor what our police officers do, and especially how MPD responds when officers hurt people or violate their rights,” Phillips said. “Even though MPD publicizes cases against legally innocent civilians, it hides its own findings that officers are guilty of official misconduct.”
The lawsuit alleges the department is violating the plaintiff's First Amendment rights under the Constitution by "delaying, burdening, or denying FOIA requests on the basis of the content and viewpoint of speech."
It asks a judge to issue an injunction against D.C., ordering it "to cease its policy of unfavorable treatment of certain FOIA requests and requesters.... and to instead treat all FOIA requests in a materially identical fashion without regard to the content or viewpoint of the requesters’ prior or anticipated speech."
It seeks nominal damages of $1.
The suit is based on a sworn affidavit from a whistleblower, retired police inspector Vendette Parker, the department's former FOIA officer, who says she was instructed on her first day in that role to inform top officials before filling FOIA requests by people deemed police critics.
"While we haven’t been formally served with the suit, MPD will not discuss specific allegations due to the pending litigation," MPD spokesperson Hugh Carew wrote in an email to WUSA9. "We do acknowledge the serious nature of the claims. Transparency with our community partners is necessary to maintaining trust and agency accountability. A thorough review of the assertions will be completed and appropriately acted upon."
WUSA9 also reached out to former MPD Police Chief Peter Newsham, who is the current chief of Prince William County Police Department. A spokesperson for PWPD said the matter does not involve their department and directed all questions to MPD.
"The Chief does not comment on pending litigation," Sergeant Jonathan Perok wrote in an email.
Critics say that a possible watchlist runs counter not only to the Constitution, but also Mayor Muriel Bowser's campaign promise to make the D.C. government more transparent to the people. The mayor commented on the situation Thursday, saying that she is still looking into the entire context of the lawsuit.
"What I will tell the chief and all directors is that they have to deal with all of our FOIA requests expeditiously," Bowser said. "And they should be agnostic to who the questioner is."
A furious Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Anthony Lorenzo Green, confronted the mayor Thursday.
"I'm a native, I'm from this community," Geen said. "And I'm very offended that anybody would put me on a watchlist just because I asked questions about what happened in this community."
Green is an ardent police reform advocate. He too was allegedly on the list.
"I assure you, I'm never going to try and stop anybody's First Amendment rights," Bowser said before calling on the next questioner.
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